Google+ Authentic Parenting: Giving Her the Words

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Giving Her the Words

How often do parents tell their children to "Use their words!" or "Talk clearly because I can't understand you when you're whining like that'. These attempts are made with good intentions, trying to get the communication going, but mostly, when children whine and shriek, it's because they simply lack the words to communicate what they feel.
Giving our children the words to tell us how they feel, what's upsetting them, is something we have to do. It can start early on, from when they're babies. But even if you didn't start then, there's always time to hand your child the right words.

Image: Eastop

Now how to do this?

First a couple of guide rules

  • Never add a judgement to the emotion
  • pick positive words
  • avoid blaming
  • don't use always and never
You're looking to be constructive, to add meaning and words to feelings and frustrations. If you're being judgmental and harsh, your child will resist learning. 

Pinpoint your emotions

Whenever you are overwhelmed by emotion, make it clear how you feel. Between your sobbing, tell your child "I am so sad because...", when you're angry, tell them you are angry and how exactly it makes you feel. "I am so angry! My throat hurt and I feel like I could punch something. I can feel my blood racing through your body" Not only is this a good exercise to be mindful of your emotions, it might help you to overcome a strong sense of overwhelm.

Name their emotions

Image: Duchessa
Be careful how you name your child's emotions, especially as they get older, because if you posit their emotional state as a given, they might object and it can create an even worse situation, so start you statements with "I feel.." or "I think" or "I can imagine". A couple examples:

  • I feel like you are getting very tired, would you like me to read you a story?
  • I think you're sad because you can't find your doll, would you like us to look together?
  • I understand that it's frustrating when mommy cooks something you don't like. Would you rather go and pick something from the fridge with me?
In all of the above statements, I offered a problem solving approach. This works very well in small children, as it diverts their energy from the problem to the solution. The key is to keep calm yourself and not get sucked into the emotional vortex. When your child gets older, if he is used to this kind of talk, he will probably come up with solutions himself. Instead of whining and screaming, your child may come in the room one day telling you: I'm very upset, I can't find my shirt and I want you to come and find it.

Question their state of mind

Every day, I ask my daughter at random times: How is your body feeling?
Depending on her answer, I may go further.
If she says "OK", I can ask her: "are you feeling calm and relaxed?"

The first couple of times I did this, I gave her some options, so she could grasp the game: "are you feeling balanced or agitated?"

Making this about how her body feels makes this about sensation instead of emotion, which in turn makes for a more receptive child. If you dig into the emotion right away (say, if you were to ask: How are you feeling? or Are you upset) chances are your child might get defensive. Certainly when they're used to some emotions not being tolerated.

I remind myself to ask her this when I see that she's getting slightly upset. The responses are amazing.
"Not good mommy. I am all jazzed up... (pause) I'm still angry because you wouldn't let me watch the movie yesterday."
This way, very often, we catch overwhelm before it happens, and instead get to talk about our feelings and carve new pathways.

How do you give your child words to talk about their emotions?

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  1. Good post, again. I need to remember to do that again with Nina. We were communicating well, but her going to school threw that good thing away. Now, when she is upset, instead of saying "Sophie you're annoying me" or "Elias you're not listening to what I say", she just yell "aahhh" or whines. I guess children at school do that and she picked it up because it seems easier and/or more satisfying. I'll try your suggestions.
    Sophie and Elias are better at communicating their frustrations / anger / etc...

  2. Yes, Nina was more reactive than communicative even when I came... it can just be a character trait too... But reactive children probably need the words the most!
    Thank you for your comment, Murielle. Glad to see you on here again! Hope all is well

  3. These are great ways to help a child explain themselves and understand their own emotions, Laura. So many times I think kids are fighting their own inner turmoil, figuring out the people around them without much help. I especially like naming emotions - it clears up so much confusion and miscommunication between the people we love. And questioning their state of mind (in terms of body vs. emotions) is genius!

  4. The "How is your body feeling today"-question is something I picked up from my massage and reiki therapist. I found it a pretty strange question the first time she asked me, but after that, I got to thinking that it's not so easy to just say fine or nod it away as it 'how are you feeling'. It makes you think about sensations, rather than just automatic response. So I found it may be a great way to approach sensations and feelings with kids, as - even if they can't name the emotion - they can tell you about the sensations they're experiencing
    Thank you for your comment

  5. Wonderful post! I like how you did it in a really systematic way. Thanks for the useful tips. It can really avoid misunderstandings and help understand your kids even more. :)


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